Monday, July 28, 2008

Here Comes the Future

If Rip Van Winkle fell asleep in 1960 and awakened in 1970, he’d be a confused man indeed. “What happened?” he’d ask himself. “Men are walking around looking like women, women are acting like men, and what’s with this loud music? Plus, everyone’s dressed like a six year-old on a play date or a circus clown. What’s with the marijuana? Doesn’t anyone drink rye whiskey anymore?”

Rip’s question would be a hard one to answer, even today, with the perspective of hindsight. Change doesn’t happen in visible moments, so how do you pin change down, understand it? We often don’t notice change until it’s already happened and we suddenly find ourselves on the wrong side of it, feeling old. Who’s young, who’s old, and the underlying dread that comes with the recognition of changes that are occurring but still too incomplete to yet understand was the theme of last night’s season two premier of Mad Men.

The unspoken but underlying tension caused by change about to happen was what made me love Mad Men in the first place. Watching season one I marveled at the attention to detail, how period specific it was, in essence feeling nostalgia for a world so recently present but so irretrievably lost. The characters, of course, didn’t know that their world was about to be lost, and the tension between what the audience knows about the 1960s and the way the characters seem to think the new decade will just be a continuation of the 1950s was central to the mood of the show.

Based on last night’s premier, this tension will be central to the plot, rather than the mood, of season two. We first see Don Draper at a physical, being told to start taking it easier; his blood pressure is high, and he’s 36, considered middle-aged at the time. Duck, Sterling Cooper’s new Client Services director, wants to go after the Martinson Coffee account. All the young people are now drinking Pepsi, and he wants to hire some young creative talent to show Martinson they can induce the young to switch over to coffee. Duck has also insisted the office buy a Xerox machine.

Upset by the news of his physical, Don has lunch at a bar, where a beatnik-type next to him is reading Frank O’Hara’s Meditations In an Emergency. Don asks if the book is good. “I don’t think you’ll like it,” the beatnik states. Don doesn’t see the need to hire young creative talent. “The young don’t know anything,” he complains. His boss insists, though, and Duck has won this battle; Don will hire new talent, talent that it’s clear he doesn’t understand, as we see when he interviews a writer and designer who come as a team, a concept alien to Don.

Things have changed on the home front as well. Don seems to be coming home every night to be with his family rather than whoring around Manhattan. His wife Betty, though, has come out of the depression of season one; we first see her in a commanding position, astride a horse, and Betty’s recognition of her power, sexual and otherwise, would seem to be foreshadowed throughout the episode. Don, on the other hand, seems emasculated, literally impotent on Valentine’s Day despite Betty’s hot lingerie, later waiting in front of the TV for his wife to get home for dinner.

Don buys and reads the Frank O’Hara book, perhaps as an attempt to keep up. The episode ends with a Don VO quoting O’Hara’s poem “Mayakovsky”: “Now I am quietly waiting for/ the catastrophe of my personality/ to seem beautiful again,/ and interesting, and modern”. What will happen to all these characters as the 1960s unfold? We’ll have to watch to see, and in fact this is the reason that we will watch.

This season will take place entirely during 1962. What the characters don’t know, but we do know, is what is still to come in this one year alone. This episode takes place on Valentine’s Day. By New Year’s Eve, the Cuban Missile Crisis will have come and gone; James Meredith and the National Guard will have integrated Ole Miss; Marilyn Monroe will have OD’d; the members of SDS will have written the Port Huron Statement; and John Glenn will have orbited the earth. Even more to the point, 87% of American homes will have a television set and CBS radio will have broadcast the final episodes of its last serials, thereby officially ending the Golden Age of Radio. The Beatles will have released their first single, “Love Me, Do.” And Andy Warhol will have had his first solo gallery show, of Campbell’s Soup paintings, at the Stable Gallery.

Frank O’Hara was a poet of immediacy, of the now. His writing was a rebellion against the academic studiousness of American Modernism. Even the title of this book, and that particular prose poem, indicates this fact; these aren’t meditations on an emergency, they are meditations in, or during, one. But Meditations In an Emergency was actually published in 1957. By the time Don Draper discovers him, O'Hara is about to be of the past himself. O’Hara was and is associated with the New York School of writers and painters, with the Abstract Expressionists that Warhol and Pop Art would succeed. He is of the 1950s. By 1966, he would be dead.

We don’t yet know what Sterling Cooper does with the Martinson Coffee account. In 1964, Andy Warhol will open the Factory and paint hundreds of plywood boxes, some replicating Brillo boxes, but some replicating Martinson Coffee. A new world not of immediacy or of its opposite, nostalgia, will be replaced by a world that ironically celebrates mechanical reproduction, and a world where the tools of mechanical reproduction can make everyone an artist, writer, musician. Warhol makes Martinson Coffee something for the young at heart in a way Sterling Cooper could never imagine.

And the Xerox machine? It’s the first in a long line of technological innovation that will lead to the decline of print media and the monopoly of the national glossy magazine. Soon, anyone will be able to put out a ‘zine. Fast forward 40 years and here we are, me writing and you reading, the means of production and consumption at our fingertips, change all around us, but we don’t truly know it yet. The future happens every day, in small increments. The pleasure of Mad Men is watching it slowly unfold.

No comments: